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Faith leaders call for peace in the aftermath of Charlottesville protesting

A person holds a lit candle during a vigil for those recently wounded and killed during confederate monument protests in Charlottesville, Va., at the Caddo Parish Court House in Shreveport, La., Sunday, August 13, 2017. (Henrietta Wildsmith/The Shreveport
A person holds a lit candle during a vigil for those recently wounded and killed during confederate monument protests in Charlottesville, Va., at the Caddo Parish Court House in Shreveport, La., Sunday, August 13, 2017. (Henrietta Wildsmith/The Shreveport Times via AP)
Henrietta Wildsmith, The Shreveport Times

White House officials on Monday continued to navigate the fallout from this weekend's violent rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, responding in part to concerns from religious leaders and organizations about the president's initial reactions and rising racial tensions across the country.

"When it comes to racism, there is only one side: to stand against it," tweeted Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Chicago, on Saturday.

On Friday night and Saturday, self-defined alt-right protesters clashed with members of the Black Lives Matter movement, students from the University of Virginia and members of Charlottesville's faith communities. As white supremacists cried out against Jews and black Americans, counter-protesters celebrated America's diversity.

Startling images of members of the alt-right movement carrying torches and assault rifles, as well as of a car driving into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one participant and injuring others, sparked responses from religious leaders across the country. They rejected racism and bigotry, expressing support for those who feel unsafe in their own country.

"It is with great sadness and deep concern that we view the violence, conflict and tragedy of recent days in Charlottesville, Virginia. People of any faith, or of no faith at all, should be troubled by the increase of intolerance in both words and actions that we see everywhere," read a statement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Our prayers are with those who are suffering because of this intolerance and hatred. We pray for peace and understanding."

"Let us unite ourselves in the spirit of hope offered by the clergy, people of faith and all people of good will who peacefully defended their city and country," said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Frank Dewane, chairman of the conference's committee on domestic justice and human development, in a joint statement.

"We stand against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-nazism," they said.

Some of the participants in the Charlottesville rallies were referred to as neo-Nazis because they copied symbols and chants of the Nazi movement, carrying signs that called Jews the children of Satan.

"The vile presence and rhetoric of the neo-Nazis who marched this weekend in Charlottesville is a reminder of the ever-present need for people of good will to stand strong, to speak loudly against hate, and act both to delegitimize those who spread such messages and to mitigate the harm done to the common weal of our nation and to those that are the targets of hate messages," said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a statement.

United Sikhs, an international organization supporting members of the Sikh faith, offered to provide free security training to any houses of worship whose members feel vulnerable in the midst of racial unrest.

"Hatred and bigotry have no place in America. Any differences must be resolved through peaceful means," said Manvinder Singh, director of United Sikhs, in a statement.

These officials responses from religious leaders and organizations were joined by more spontaneous comments on social media from individual faith leaders.

"Hate has no weapon that love will not conquer," wrote Traci Blackmon, a United Church of Christ pastor who helped lead a faith-based counter-protest in Charlottesville, on Facebook.

"The so-called Alt-Right white supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core. We should say so," tweeted Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Moore and other Southern Baptist leaders officially condemned the alt-right movement earlier this summer, during the denomination's annual meeting. But the process was affected by confusion about the size of the alt-right movement and the tension that often surrounds efforts to address racial tensions within a religious setting.

In general, evangelical leaders faced high levels of scrutiny in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville. Some struggled to condemn the alt-right protesters, some of whom credited President Donald Trump with inspiring their actions, without angering the people in their pews.

"These evangelical pastors and Christian activists, authors and leaders are fearful. They are fearful of sanction from congregations where people in the pews may have voted for a morally problematic candidate because they did not like the alternatives," wrote Joshua Dubois, who led the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama administration, for The Daily Beast.

Many of Trump's evangelical advisers did eventually speak out against the events in Charlottesville, sometimes going farther in their condemnations than the president himself, as Christianity Today reported.

Trump was broadly criticized over the weekend for failing to condemn white supremacy by name in his initial statement on Charlottesville.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides," the president said on Saturday, according to CNN.

On Monday, Trump spoke out again on Charlottesville, this time specifically condemning "the KKK, neo-nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups," according to ABC News.

Franklin Graham, son of popular evangelist Billy Graham and a prominent evangelical leader in his own right, defended Trump in the midst of the early backlash, criticizing those who tried to score political points off of protests and pain.

"Shame on the politicians who are trying to push blame on President Trump for what happened in Charlottesville. That's absurd," he wrote in a Facebook post. "This boils down to evil in people's hearts. Satan is behind it all."