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Church leaders rally, speak out against anti-Muslim rhetoric

[Episcopal News Service] Plans by a Florida-based Christian pastor to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11 -- the anniversary of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks -- and a recent surge in violence against Muslims is being met with widespread condemnation by church groups and leaders who are calling for religious tolerance and an end to anti-Islamic attitudes.

Pastor Terry Jones of the nondenominational Dove World Outreach Church in Gainesville, Florida, has said he will proceed with what he is calling "International Burn a Koran Day" despite warnings from high-ranking church and governmental leaders that his actions could have grave consequences for national security and Christians throughout the world.

On Sept. 7, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs echoed the concern recently expressed by Gen. David Petraeus, NATO's International Security Assistance Force commander in Afghanistan, that the Quran burning could danger U.S. troops and citizens abroad.

A group of U.S. interfaith leaders -- including the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, and Episcopal Diocese of New York Bishop Mark Sisk -- held a summit and press conference Sept. 7 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to condemn Jones' plans and to decry incidents of violence committed against innocent Muslims.

An NCC press release said the leaders acknowledged the "anti-Muslim frenzy" that has existed in the U.S. since plans were announced to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero -- where the twin towers of the World Trade Center stood before they were attacked and destroyed by Muslim extremists on Sept. 11, 2001. The center, now known as Park 51, has drawn both criticism and support.

"The plan to build this center is, without doubt, an emotionally highly charged issue," Sisk said in an Aug. 24 letter to his diocese. "But as a nation with tolerance and religious freedom at its very foundation, we must not let our emotions lead us into the error of persecuting or condemning an entire religion for the sins of its most misguided adherents."

"We denounce anti-Muslim bigotry. We identify ourselves with religious tolerance," said Kinnamon at the Sept. 7 press conference. "We are made richer and deeper in our Christian community by our relationship with Muslim and Jewish colleagues."

Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, which organized the event, said during the press conference that Muslims in America report the highest degree of anxiety they have felt since the events of 9/11.

"For nine years, we have been trying to get the message out that we reject the extremist views" of a few Muslims, "their justification for violence, their justification for militancy," she said, according to the release. "It has been difficult to get this message out because the actions of the extremists are more dramatic. The majority of Muslims we know as law-abiding, ethical, good people."

Participants in the summit talked about next steps, such as "calling on our networks, our constituencies, to replicate this kind of meeting in local communities," Kinnamon said. "We've also called upon state councils to say no to this kind of bigotry. It is important for us as a Christian community to say an unequivocal no."

In a Sept. 7 letter, Bishop Leo Frade of Southeast Florida questioned whether Jones "has any idea of how much harm and persecution his action will bring upon Christians living around the world -- and specifically those living in countries with a majority Muslim population."

Frade called Jones' plans "an act of intolerance and religious stupidity" and appealed to him "to desist from an action that will hurt his Christian brothers and sisters around the world; they are the ones who will suffer the consequences of his fanatical act."

Frade appealed to Jones' "patriotism and concern for our U.S. troops" warning that "this planned act of disrespect and destruction of the Muslim scriptures will both endanger our troops already in perilous situations and harm our relationship with those Muslim countries that are our sincere allies.

"I would remind Pastor Jones that our Lord forgives what we find it impossible to forgive and challenges us to move beyond fear, suspicion and hatred to 'love one another,'" said Frade. "I want to assure the followers of Islam here and around the world that the planned actions of the Dove Center do not represent the true values and beliefs of the followers of Jesus Christ, who tells us that the greatest commandment is love."

The Rev. Andrew Heyes of St. Clement Episcopal Church in Tampa, Florida, has said he will use his Sunday sermon to preach against the planned protest of Islam, according to a news report.

"It shows a lack of Christian concept of grace and love that we should offer to all people, no matter of what faith or no faith," Heyes said in the report. "The idea of book-burning is kind of the first-resort of a Totalitarian regime, rather than a free country, which the U.S. is."

Heyes says the extremists in Gainesville are a tiny portion of the population, but their acts will hurt the reputation of all Christians and Americans.

In Massachusetts, Episcopalians joined an interfaith crowd of about 150 people which gathered at the State House in Boston on Sept. 7 to denounce terrorism and religious bigotry.

"The recent stabbing of a Muslim cab driver in New York City, the recent burning of a mosque in Tennessee, the proposed burning of the Qur'an by a pastor in Florida -- such acts are fueled and enabled by a climate of fear, hatred and intolerance, by what has turned into an assault on Islam and our Muslim-American neighbors," the Rev. Nancy S. Taylor of Old South Church, United Church of Christ, in Boston told the crowd.

"The vitriol against Islam goes much deeper than the opposition to the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan," Taylor said.  "We cannot and will not allow this to go unchecked. It is life threatening to Muslims and it is disfiguring our national soul."

Taking place beneath the bronze gaze of a statue of Mary Dyer -- a Quaker hanged on Boston Common in 1660 for her religious beliefs -- the event was a press conference to release an interfaith statement and pledge, "To Bigotry No Sanction, To Persecution No Assistance," available here.

Bishop Suffragan of Massachusetts Bud Cederholm commended the interfaith pledge to diocesan clergy in a Sept. 2 e-mail. "This is a critical moment in our communities and country for people of faith to stand up for what our God teaches us through the prophets, including Mohammed, and our Lord Jesus Christ. If we don't, who will?" Cederholm wrote.

In the Diocese of Southern Ohio, Episcopalians are planning to join an interfaith solidarity service, "Burn No Sacred Books," at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 11, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Clintonville, Ohio. The service is intended to "affirm religious tolerance and build a pluralistic society where all share equal dignity and mutual loyalty," according to a brochure publicizing the event.

Meanwhile, the board of directors of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture -- of which the Episcopal Church is a member -- also issued a Sept. 7 statement saying that the organization is "deeply concerned" about the growing anti-Muslim rhetoric in the U.S. during the past few months.

"While anti-Muslim sentiments, as misguided as they are, are not new to our country, they have become more common, seemingly more accepted, and, thus, more dangerous," the group said. "People of all religions, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Baha'is, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists should be able to live and flourish in the United States. We are a country founded on religious freedom. It's what makes us great; it's what stokes our democracy; it's what helps keep us humane."

-- -- Matthew Davies is editor and international correspondent of the Episcopal News Service. Tracy Sukraw, director of communications for the Diocese of Massachusetts, contributed to this report.

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