End Religious Bigotry, Faith Leaders Say

September 09, 2010

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

A diverse group of religious leaders has called upon other U.S. spiritual leaders to join them in condemning "derision, misinformation or outright bigotry directed against any religious group in this country."
Prompted by the "anti-Muslim frenzy" sparked by the debate over plans to build an Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero in New York – known as the Park51 project – the religious leaders, including United Methodists, said they were "profoundly distressed and deeply saddened" by recent attacks on Muslims.
"We stand by the principle that to attack any religion in the United States is to do violence to the religious freedom of all Americans," the Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders declared during a September 7 press conference in Washington.
Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, was one of those invited to the emergency summit organized through the Islamic Society of North America. As three dozen religious leaders – many of whom he knew – refined a draft statement, "I felt like there was a great spirit in the room," he said. "Everybody felt it was really crucial to do this."
The participation of Winkler and Bishop Neil Irons of the United Methodist Council of Bishops provided "a validating presence" by The United Methodist Church in the discussion, Winkler added.
Irons noted that many Americans know very little about Islam and instead react as if the events of 9/11 were "the only real expression" of this major world religion.
"The reality is that this is a very extremist militant expression, and the overreaction of some parts of the American public, continuing to this day, puts at risk many of our Muslim neighbors," the bishop said.
With political and other voices using the debate over the Islamic community center "as a means of dividing us from our neighbors, it was time for an interfaith set of representatives to speak to this nation about how we live together as American religious people," Irons added.
Respecting the faith
United Methodists not only believe in freedom of religion, but also respect the integrity and contributions of the Muslim faith, said the Rev. Bud Heckman, a United Methodist pastor and executive with Religions for Peace who helped make preparations for the Sept. 7 meeting.
"In the current climate of open questioning about the place of Muslims in America, it is important for United Methodists to speak up and stand up on behalf of their Muslim neighbors," he said. "Doing so is part of our Christian faith, our tradition of hospitality and good neighborliness."
Some congregations already have modeled such behavior, he pointed out, such as St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Fremont, California, which shared space with a local mosque as they both broke ground for new facilities.
The statement on anti-Muslim bigotry by the religious leaders recognizes that the area around the former World Trade Center "remains an open wound" but does not take a stand on the mosque's location. "Persons of conscience have taken different positions on the wisdom of the location of this project, even if the legal right to build on the site appears to be unassailable," the leaders said. The Islamic community center is planned two city blocks from the World Trade Center site.
But, the leaders insist, "no religion should be judged on the words or actions of those who seek to pervert it through acts of violence." Nor are people "justified in exploiting religious differences as a wedge to advance political agendas or ideologies."
In addition, the statement said, "bearing false witness against the neighbor – something condemned by all three of our religious traditions – is inflicting particular harm on the followers of Islam, a world religion that has lately been mischaracterized by some as a 'cult.'"
Witnessing 'an incivility'
The Rev. Steve Sidorak Jr., top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, echoed the statement's sentiments.
"What we're witnessing now is an incivility that is commonplace in civil discourse," he said. "In the country today, so-called hate speech . . . has become the routinely accepted method by which to broadcast one's opinions."
Sidorak believes that people have a right to get "worked up" about an issue as long as they're informed about the facts. But lies, slander, and hate-filled speech have "created a climate in which hate crimes are committed," he declared.
In recent weeks, police across the U.S. have reported incidents of violence against Muslims or those suspected of being Muslim. In New York City, a passenger asked a cab driver whether he was Muslim and then stabbed him. In Seattle, a man began punching a Sikh convenience store clerk after accusing him of being in al-Qaida. In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, federal agents are investigating a suspected arson on the construction site of a planned mosque.
"I hope this (crisis) will revive the imperative for Muslims and Christians to be in dialogue with one another," Sidorak said. "It will help us to build those bridges."
As the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks approaches, the volume of discord seems to have increased. In their statement, the interfaith leaders joined the many others condemning the plans of an evangelical pastor to burn copies of Islam's holy book, the Quran, on September 11.
"As religious leaders, we are appalled by such disrespect for a sacred text that for centuries has shaped many of the great cultures of our world, and that continues to give spiritual comfort to more than a billion Muslims today," they said.
Posing a threat
Even General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, felt compelled to warn that if Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, burns the Quran it could endanger U.S. troops.
Church leaders in Florida have condemned the proposed action. The Rev. Kent Svendsen, a United Methodist pastor and retired Army Reserve chaplain from the Northern Illinois Annual (regional) Conference, said he sent a message to the Dove center, asking Jones not to promote hatred and violence against Islam.
While Svendsen would like to see more Muslims publicly condemn radical Islam, he said Christians can lead by example "and take a public and vocal stand against this same type of behavior on the part of people who call themselves Christian."
The National Council of Churches began speaking out against the threat to burn the Quran in Florida after hearing from Christians overseas, says the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, the council's top executive. Extremists in other countries were using the planned action by Jones as a pretext for threats against the minority Christian populations, he explained.
Kinnamon was among the organizers of the statement by interfaith leaders, which he considers an important step toward countering "Islamaphobia" and re-affirming relationships among Christians, Muslims and Jews.
The silver lining to the controversy, he said, could be "a re-commitment to steps taken after 9/11" to achieve real understanding among the faiths.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.