Dr. Faheem Younus looked out over a crowd of Christians, Jews and other visitors to his Ahmadiyya Muslim Community mosque in Rosedale Sunday night.
"As-salamu alaykum," he said, "and that's not a terrorist code. It means, 'Peace be upon you.'"
It was the first lesson in a brief introduction to the Reformist sect of Islam he called the "vaccine to ISIS."
Younus and other Baltimore-area faith leaders pledged to work together to dispel stereotypes swirling about Islam in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., at a service they called "Faiths Unite Against Hatred."
"Love for all, Hatred for none," read a banner hanging behind the panel of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders who took turns speaking about how to sow love and understanding into a society gripped by fear and prejudice.
The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church said he had heard on the radio on his way to the service that demagoguery has thrived throughout history "in times when people become cynical about the truth."
"I think we are all being tested these days about some basic truths, one of which I know my faith teaches. ... We must learn to love our neighbors as ourselves," he said. "I think that basic truth is being tested in the public arena. Can we really learn to love our neighbors as ourselves?"
Rabbi Andrew Busch, of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, pulled a candle out of his coat pocket and noted that Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday, was drawing to a close.
"That light of my tradition is found in your tradition in your own way, and in that we share, even as we each practice and reach for God through our own words, our own vocabulary, our own rituals," he said.
Busch pointed out that in many religions, the lighting of a candle serves as a way to remember those who have died, with the flame representing their spirit.
Ahmadiyya Muslims believe the messiah came in the person of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a 19th century Indian who said he was the metaphorical second coming of Jesus and the divine guide foretold by the Prophet Muhammad. The group claims tens of millions of adherents around the world.
Hammad Ahmad, imam of the Rosedale mosque, said his community often struggles to get its message of peace out amid the focus on extremists carrying out terrorist attacks.
"We want to scream louder than ISIS," he said, "but scream peace."
An Ahmadiyya Muslim Community mosque in Hawthorne, Calif., was vandalized Saturday night, a spokesman said. "Jesus" was spray painted on the side of the mosque's wall and a plastic replica of a hand grenade was left in the parking lot.
Younus said he is frustrated to have to justify his religion and to explain that "nutcases," as he called them, are a minority who twist Islam's teachings, not the majority.
But he compared it to being thrown into the ring with boxer Mike Tyson.
"We pack the best peace punch," Younus said.
Olivia McCall, 25, of Patterson Park, asked the panel how young people living in a world of intolerance and ignorance can spread unity and understanding.
"How do we bring this to people who may not realize that there are more similarities among us than differences and that we have to take care of one another?" she asked.
McCall said afterward that she agreed with the answer given by the Rev. Shannon Sullivan of Presbury United Methodist Church in Edgewood.
"You have to become more informed so you can have those discussions," McCall said.
Gonzia Green, who writes a blog called Inside Strong Christian Ministries, said he was "very encouraged" by the sharing of common ideals at the gathering.
"The underlying principle is God," he said.