Op-Ed: Interfaith efforts teach tolerance, both global and local

Pope Francis – following his recent trip to the Holy Land – expects June 8 to welcome Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to a Vatican prayer meeting.  Separately, like-minded action is afoot in our state.

On June 1, Connecticut’s Ahmadiyya Muslim community hosted an event, “One Human Race,” at a mosque.  Speakers included not only leaders of the Ahmadiyya community and its youth auxiliary but also the mayor of Meriden; pastor of the South Meriden Trinity Church; rabbi of the Temple B’nai Abraham; and a leader of a Southington Sikh gurdwara (temple).

Op-ed submit bugThey invoked sources ranging from the Quran (49:14: “the most honorable among you … is he who is the most righteous among you”) to the Torah to Galatians and Matthew (“love thy neighbor”).  Animating the gathering were such questions as “What did Moses, Jesus, Mohammad (pbuh) and Baba Guru Nanak teach about equality and non-discrimination?  What remedies did these holy founders prescribe to combat racism?”

In response, speakers emphasized the common prophets among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – that in true piety there is “no monopoly on salvation,” “no compulsion,” that “all messengers are equal.”  The panelist representing the Sikh faith (Dr. Ripi Singh) talked of its founder (Baba Guru Nanak, born a Hindu Brahmin), who in the 15th and 16th centuries walked thousands of miles to preach unity.  As Dr. Singh declared, “Ethics, compassion, and truth are more important” than religion, caste, or dress.

The discussion confronted a glaring weakness in many religions’ practices – treatment of, and opportunities for, women and girls.  A need for greater equality around gender, along with race and social class, was acknowledged.  Culture and law, beyond religion specifically, too often restrict women’s rights.

There is growing popular awareness of Sunni and Shiite divisions among Muslims, but less familiarity with branches of Islam such as the Ahmadi and Sufi – groups that some Muslims regard as altogether different religions.

The June 1 interfaith event was the second that the Ahmadiyya Muslim community had organized locally in recent months.  Earlier, after 2012 shootings at a Wisconsin gurdwara killed six, people of many faiths had supported Sikhs mourning the attack on their brothers and sisters; this stimulated a Connecticut iteration of “One Human Race” that preceded the more recent happenings.

This week’s event included sober reflection on the murder in Pakistan of an American doctor of Pakistani descent – Mehdi Ali Qamar – who was Ahmadi and offering ecumenical medical assistance.

Such humanitarian missions, along with blood drives and interfaith initiatives, are regular Ahmadi activities.  The group’s website – “Muslims for peace” – and the local mosque’s sign proclaim, “Love for all, hatred for none.”  God (“Allah”) is said to be “gracious” and “merciful.”  Sadly, an extremist of another sect saw such teachings as blasphemous and, in a warped abuse of religion, killed a heroic man as he conducted his medical mission.

Sohail Husain, M.D., a former Connecticut resident, is part of the Muslim Writers Guild of America, through which he has published various articles, insisting – for example – that, “Muslims should ignore incitements to violence.”  Another member of the Writers Guild has argued, “Those who follow Islam are Muslims; but not all Muslims follow Islam.”

Such voices deserve greater attention.  News media, social media, organizational outreach, and informal, personal interactions all can be forces for good (or ill).

Charles Blow of the New York Times, in a column (“The Self-Sort”) on segregation, noted, “It’s easy to demonize, or simply dismiss, people you don’t know or see.”  Mindful of this hazard, and harnessing the spiritual power of multiple religions, we can pursue interfaith action.

When Pope Francis visited the Holy Land last month, he condemned a terrorist attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels (weeks after a Klansman murdered innocents at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City).  The pope said, “I am so opposed to any anti-Semitic manifestation.” Like his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi (who expressed concern for Muslims during the Crusades), this pope is also sensitive to Islamic interests.

Praying together may not help the pope, Israelis, and Palestinians to secure an elusive peace.  Yet recognizing our common humanity – across nations, cultures, beliefs (sometimes non-beliefs) – is essential.  Prayer can promote such recognition.

Sharing a meal together, as after the consideration of “One Human Race” on June 1, can be constructive, too.  Three generations of Americans – with origins spanning the globe, skin tones crossing the spectrum, attire of many types – enjoyed Sunday dinner.  Breaking bread eases barriers.

No religion, no culture should yield its interpretation to zealots – to violent intolerance.  Conscientious people, from the Ahmadiyya to the Anti-Defamation League, from the Latino-Jewish Dialogue to the Jewish-Muslim Community Dialogue and the Interfaith Youth Core, are working to advance understanding and peace.  Let’s join them, or launch our own such endeavors – individually and institutionally.

Josiah H. Brown, who is of Jewish and Lutheran descent, and his wife – a citizen of India who is of Muslim descent – and their children live in New Haven.  Their relatives include Hindu as well as Muslim, Christian, and Jewish families, in the U.S., Germany, and India.

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