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As anti-Muslim rhetoric worsens, interfaith efforts grow

Muslim leader: "People are tired of condemning and denouncing"

At a Friday evening Shabbat service at Towson University, a singer asks her listeners to turn and face the entrance of the room.

"The joy we have welcoming Shabbat is comparable to what a groom feels as his bride enters," Aviva Match says.

Hafiz Aina, a Muslim visitor to the service, joins in the Jewish celebration.

"I love learning about different cultures and religions," he says after the service. "Getting to know each other is the best way to be ready to communicate with other people when the really challenging issues come up."

Match and Aina, seniors at Towson, were among the dozens of Jews, Christians and Muslims who attended Kabbalat Shabbat, the service that marks the onset of the Jewish day of rest. It was one of several interfaith activities cosponsored by Towson's Hillel, Muslim Student Association and Center for the Arts on a recent evening.

At a time when politicians are making headlines — and gaining supporters — by inveighing against Muslims, leaders and believers of many faiths are reaching out to one another with renewed vigor, sharing their views, seeking common ground and trying to work more closely together.

The Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Towson changed its name last month to the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, a signal of its new goal of working with all three Abrahamic faiths. The Baltimore Jewish Council has backed more than a dozen major events bringing together Jews and Muslims since 2014.

And Archbishop William E. Lori, the spiritual leader of the half-million Catholics in the Baltimore Archdiocese, recently led a group that included pastors, an imam and a rabbi on a trip to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican.

The pontiff delivered a talk to pilgrims from around the world, then descended from his platform to pray with the men and bless their work together in Baltimore.

"To find ourselves connected to this global struggle, then have the opportunity to meet the Holy Father — I'm even more deeply in awe of his role than before," said the Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway, pastor of Union Baptist Church. "I think people in Baltimore will now see there are no barriers. We are all part of this beloved community."

While Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups are in conflict in parts of the world, the three faith traditions share common origins and encourage similar values.

"All our respective scriptures call us to the common good," said Imam Earl El-Amin, director of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore and one of the Rome pilgrims.

The Quran spells this out, El-Amin said.

Islam's holy book says that "we have created you as nations and tribes so you will get to know one another," El-Amin said. "It means to recognize but also work with one another."

Lori has worked with the city's Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders since arriving here four years ago.

"In my time in Baltimore, one thing I've experienced — and it has been a grace in my life — is that we've found so many things we wholeheartedly agree on," he said. "We as religious leaders must proclaim the gospel of human dignity."

The group has met regularly for years but has stepped up its schedule since the death of Freddie Gray.

The Baltimore man died last April after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody. His death inspired protests; on the day of his funeral, the city erupted in riots, arson and looting.

The incident has inspired a broad discussion among leaders, activists and citizens about poverty, housing, education and other concerns in the city.

It's not the only event that has accelerated interfaith efforts in recent months.

Muslims and others say the December attack in San Bernardino, Calif., where two self-described members of the faith opened fire at a Christmas luncheon, killing 14 people, and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East have sparked a new wave of aggression against American Muslims.

Calls by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to ban the entry of Muslims into the United States and create a government database on Muslim Americans have drawn cheers at his rallies and boosted his poll numbers.

Shahan Rizvi, president of the Muslim Council of Howard County, ticks off a half-dozen instances of bigotry he has seen or heard about, including a woman who had a flat tire but refused help from a Muslim, a new term of unwelcome for Muslim schoolchildren ("no fly zone"), and a mother who now tells her daughter to wear a cross to school to avoid anti-Muslim taunts.

Arielle Adler, a Towson University junior and Hillel member, says Muslim women on the campus have reported being followed by strangers to their dorms at night. She adds that anti-Semitism also reared its head recently when anti-Jewish slurs appeared on a public bulletin board.

Rizvi said it's so obvious to him that only fringe fanatics commit acts of terror in the name of Islam — and that the overwhelming majority of Muslims consider such acts antithetical to their faith — that it has become frustrating and exhausting to keep having to denounce each one.

Instead, he says, it's better for Muslims to emerge from their isolation into the broader culture and exemplify their faith in action.

His organization does just that. For years it has teamed with leaders of Beth Shalom Congregation and St. John Baptist Church in Columbia to stage dinners and other events, including an evening every Martin Luther King Day that features scripture readings and songs from each of the three faith traditions.

The three congregations recently joined to lobby the Howard County public school system to adopt one religious holiday per year for each faith, a change the school system put into effect this year.

On a smaller scale, Rizvi led 20 Muslim friends on a group visit to patients in local hospitals on Christmas Day.

Muslims revere Jesus, whose birth Christians celebrate on Christmas. Rizvi had read that fewer people visit hospitals on Christmas than on any other day of the year, and figured the idea would be in keeping with the holiday's spirit.

"I can condemn and denounce [acts of terror] all I want, but people are tired of us condemning and denouncing," Rizvi says. "It all comes down to grass-roots efforts. It takes changing an opinion in real life to change this poison in the air."

Others in Maryland have followed suit. In January, the Baltimore Jewish Council partnered with Gov. Larry Hogan's office to host a program in which Muslim and Jewish women were trained to lobby lawmakers on issues key to both faiths.

The Baltimore Jewish Council has also hosted a tour of Slade Mansion, the 10-bedroom Colonial home in Pikesville that the local Ahmadi Muslim community purchased and turned into a mosque in 2012.

The Pikesville area is home to many of the area's major synagogues.

At an interfaith evening co-hosted by the Baltimore Jewish Council at Towson University last year, a multigenerational gathering of 40 Jews, Muslims and others discussed ways of using social media to spread the word about interfaith events and dispel stereotypes about Judaism and Islam.

"We've had Jewish-Muslim events since 9/11, but this is the first time we've buckled down and had this many," says Madeline Suggs, the council's director of public affairs. "There's an openness in the Jewish community at this time to put more energy into interfaith efforts. We have a common interest in fighting hateful rhetoric."

The Institute for Islamic, Jewish and Christian Studies hired its first scholar of Islam in 2014.

Dr. Homayra Ziad spent a year helping the center explore how "most effectively and compassionately" to bring a third religion to the institute. She has been leading the effort to incorporate Islam into its educational and outreach programs.

Last hear, she taught a course on the Quran for 140 non-Muslim adults.

"It was incredible," she says. "You could see the thirst for some kind of literacy around Islam."

The center now offers a course on Muslims in America with a focus on the African-American community.

Ziad has also worked with diversity trainers in schools, helped set up a program for faith-based activists including Muslims, and met with religious leaders from all the Abrahamic faiths.

The institute is working with Suggs' team to plan a Jewish-Muslim Stoop Storytelling workshop at the Park Heights Jewish Community Center on April 10.

Lori, speaking from Rome, described an event he said affirmed the power of interfaith work.

As part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, the pontiff opened the Holy Door of the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome and invited "anyone who enters [to] experience the love of God who consoles, pardons and instills hope."

The pilgrims from Baltimore walked through it Wednesday.

"To go through those doors together, united in a spirit of love and fraternal understanding, was a beautiful experience," Lori said. "Much more powerful than walking through alone."

Towson University students say they have experienced similar feelings.

Three years ago, Adler helped the school's Hillel and Muslim Students Association create the campus group Jews and Muslims, or JAM. It has staged several interfaith events, including team-building exercises, game nights and challah bakes.

The most popular has been the annual Kabbalat Shabbat. About 50 Jews, Muslims and others gathered at a campus art show, heard sacred songs; stood for kiddush, a prayer of sanctification; and shared a meal.

It was the third such event Aina has attended. He said they were beginning to feel familiar.

"None of it seems strange any more," he said. "We discuss how our rituals vary, but we're learning we're more alike than different.

"We're young people trying to make connections."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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