The Brussels archbishop thanked Christians for gestures of support in the wake of bomb attacks in his city and urged Belgians not to react by stoking anti-foreigner feeling.
“The messages we’ve received from everywhere — from the Pope and bishops worldwide — are very important as signs of fraternity, which let us feel how we are united in faith and in humanity,” said Archbishop Josef De Kesel of Mechelen-Brussels, president of the Belgian bishops’ conference.
“We must stay faithful to our message of peace and go on promoting a discourse which appeals for acceptance, brotherhood and coexistence. This type of attack shows how anyone can be affected and the great danger that fear will appear everywhere. There’s a temptation to react by turning against migrants and refugees, who’ll become victims once again.”
The archbishop spoke to France’s Catholic La Croix daily after the March 22 terrorist attacks, which left at least 34 dead at Zaventem airport and the city’s Maelbeek metro station. The Belgian government announced three days of national mourning after attacks, for which ISIS claimed credit.
In the La Croix interview, Archbishop De Kesel said Brussels remained in shock from the attacks, which paralysed communication links throughout the city.
However, he added that Catholic clergy had been “visibly there for the victims,” and said the Church’s airport chaplain, Fr Michel Gaillard, had been “aiding and accompanying” families of victims since the explosions.
Among those sending messages of support and prayers to Archbishop De Kesel were Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. He said the news of the attacks, just before Good Friday, “deepens our own meditation on the cross.”
“Of course, the terror of the Crucifixion is overcome by the hope of the Resurrection,” he added. “Through unity, courage and comforting of the victims, the people of Belgium remind me of the apostles comforted by the risen Lord. In the face of unspeakable violence, they refused to allow fear to be their final witness.”
During his general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday, Pope Francis prayed and asked people “to unite in the unanimous condemnation of these cruel abominations that have caused only death, terror and horror.”
Jesuit Father Tommy Scholtes, spokesman for the Belgian bishops, said Christians planned an ecumenical prayer service on Wednesday and said he hoped Easter Masses would continue as planned at city churches.
“We hope people will rise up and recover from these events, and life (will) return to normal in a few days,” he told Catholic News Service. “But for now, the airport and many train stations are closed and movement is disrupted while the security forces seek those behind these attacks, so it’s hard to predict how long this will take.”
Traditional Holy Week chrism Masses were cancelled on March 22 in several churches, and the Belgian bishops urged Catholics to observe a period of silence for the victims as church bells were rung at midday on Wednesday.
In Havana on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro joined the crowd in Estadio Latinoamericano for a moment of silence for victims of the bombings before an exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.
Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Borys Gudziak of Paris, whose diocese includes Belgium, said the attacks were an effort to cripple Europe’s openness to others.
“By assailing Europeans and assaulting hospitable and open Europe, terrorists seek to push the continent into throes of fear,” he said. “Why? Because fear is a great manipulator, a wicked tool of control.
Brussels is the nerve center for united Europe whose countries witnessed the horrors of the World War II and decided to eliminate war between neighbors: to rid themselves of fear of the other, to open hearts and demilitarise borders. This openness is a great grace and gift of Europe to the world.”
The Brussels-based Pax Christi International expressed shock at the violence and said it stood in solidarity with the victims and their families.
“Witnessing again the tragedy of the human capacity to destroy life and to violate human dignity, we reaffirm our commitment to be guided, not by the fear and hatred that are the seeds of terror and war, but by love and nonviolence,” the worldwide Catholic peace organisation said in a statement released hours after the bombings.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia described each life lost as a “precious gift from God that has been torn from all those whom it touched.” He called upon the archdiocese to pray for the victims of the bombings as well as those who are mourning “as a result of this act of evil.”
“As we commemorate the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ this Holy Week, let us remember that God is the source of love and life and ask him to bring peace to our troubled world,” he said.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organisation in the United States, also offered its solidarity to Belgians and sent condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims.
“Such heinous attacks are antithetical to the ideals of civilized society” the council said in a statement.
The Belgian Muslim Executive said it was appealing “in the name of all citizens of the Muslim faith” for “unity and togetherness in a front against all forms of violence and terrorism.”
It added that Belgian Muslims reaffirmed “their deep attachment to democratic values,” supported efforts by the “forces of order,” and backed the “public authorities charged with guaranteeing the country’s security and social cohesion.”
Archbishop De Kesel said people must recognize that radicalised groups “are an extremely small minority.”
He said: “This act is of such a level that it surpasses any religious question — it is only intended to spread terror, and this is why we must avoid being turned against Islam by it. Yes, Islam is there, and Muslims form part of our city. But they could do nothing about what’s happened and should not be made victims a second time.”