Church leaders said they have been left saddened by “polarised public commentary” around an event to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland.
A prayer service has been organised in Armagh next month by the four main churches in Northern Ireland, with the Queen expected to attend.
But the centenary event led to a political row last week after President Michael D Higgins said he would not be attending.
This led to an angry response from unionists who said the service was about reconciliation and accused the President of “retrograde steps”.
Now, the main church leaders have explained their decision to organise the event which they said was to “explore the opportunity to deepen the work of reconciliation in a context of respectful dialogue”.
They have issued a joint statement in the name of the Church Leaders Group, which includes the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, John McDowell, the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, Eamon Martin, the Presbyterian Moderator David Bruce, the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, Sahr Yambasu and the President of the Irish Council of Churches, Ivan Patterson.
They said: “We made a decision as the Church Leaders Group to undertake a collective programme of engagement with the 1921 centenaries.
“We were conscious that these centenaries would highlight painful moments from our past which continue to impact relationships in our present.
“We felt a responsibility as Christian leaders to explore the opportunity to deepen the work of reconciliation in a context of respectful dialogue.
“We cannot undo the past, but we can learn from it, and we all have a responsibility to contribute to the healing of relationships from our different perspectives.
“As church leaders we have been saddened by the polarised public commentary around our service of reflection and hope.”
They added: “The tone of the public debate has shone a light on the societal wounds we wish to reflect on in this service.
“We wish primarily to gather in prayer for healing of relationships, and in doing so, to demonstrate a renewed commitment to working together for peace, reconciliation and the common good.
“We, of course, understand that not everyone will feel able to participate with us in this service.”
The church leaders continued: “We re-state once again that the service is an initiative of the Church Leaders’ Group and church leaders have been wholly responsible for its planning, organisation and design.
“As we stated in March, it does not form part of any other programme of events.
“We recognise the need to better respect our differences, but we must learn ‘to differ well’ and be prepared to listen and show charity to those with different views and aspirations.”
Last week President Higgins said he declined an invitation to the service had come after six months of consideration.
He said: “That’s the beginning, so it isn’t a sudden decision, the decision is the outcome of a consideration.”
But DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said that the service was about hope and reconciliation.
He added: “It’s hosted by the four churches, that in itself is cross community, it is demonstrating in real and tangible ways reconciliation in Northern Ireland and yet it is regrettable that the president feels he can’t attend this.”