Presbyterian project brings Muslims, Christians together

Posted: Friday, October 11, 2002

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Muslims and Christians sat near each other, crossed-legged in their stocking feet, listening to a sermon that stressed connections binding people separated by faith and custom.

''We are all creations of God, the same God,'' said Aly A. Farag, the imam at the mosque near the banks of the Ohio River.

A dozen Presbyterians listened intently as Farag stressed the importance of obedience to the Almighty and treating others with kindness.

They were familiar themes to the Presbyterians, who attended the Islamic prayer service as part of an effort by their denomination to bridge the gulf separating Christians and Muslims in this country.

''I felt quite comfortable and at peace with what he said. There were parts of that I thought could be in any Christian sermon,'' Karolyn Mangeot, a Presbyterian from Corydon, Ind., said afterward.

The Christians were invited to the prayer service as part of an interfaith listening project organized by the Presbyterian Church (USA), the nation's seventh-largest denomination, headquartered in Louisville.


Andreas D'Souza, left, a Christian visiting from India, and Aly A. Faraq, the imam or religious leader at Fisal Mosque, share a warm greeting Sept. 13, 2002, in Louisville, Ky. D'Souza was invited to Friday prayer as part of an interfaith listening project organized by the Presbyterian Church (USA), along with a Muslim from India, Ismat Mehdi, to visit with Presbyterian congregations and help organize interdenominational events.

AP Photo/Brian Bohannon

The church recruited seven teams from overseas, each consisting of one Muslim and one Christian, to visit Presbyterian congregations throughout the United States and -- where possible -- to bring together members of local churches and mosques.

The purpose was to promote understanding and harmony between Christians and Muslims -- a concept given greater urgency since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the prospects of war with Iraq, an organizer said.

''We're well aware that neither of our communities can, in isolation, deal with the problems in our world today,'' said the Rev. Margaret Thomas, who helped coordinate the project.

The Muslim-Christian teams visited dozens of cities, small and large. One pair, a Muslim woman and a Christian man from India, spent three days in Louisville. Other pairs came from Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Jordan and Niger.

Thomas said the teams had a track record of working to bring people of different faiths together in their countries. The thinking was that, if they shared their experiences, the same thing might happen in the United States.

The visitors were quickly immersed in Presbyterian life, from potluck dinners to worship services.

The Ethiopian team, which included an English-speaking interpreter who is Muslim, attended an interdenominational prayer service in Traverse City, Mich., on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

On another evening, the Ethiopians went to a dinner at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Beulah, Mich., followed by a discussion, said Don Mead, a church member and host for the group. The Ethiopians talked about efforts in their homeland to ease tensions among Christians and Muslims.

''I think most people in our congregation had never met a Muslim before,'' Mead said. ''To see that these were people who have very reasonable opinions and were working closely with Christian colleagues and friends in Ethiopia to defuse potentially violent situations was, I think, phenomenally important.''

Respecting people of other faiths was a common theme during discussions. At the Islamic service in Louisville, Andreas D'Souza, the Christian visiting from India, noted that passages in the Quran and Bible urge followers to reach out to other people.

''When we try to cross the boundaries that we created, then something happens. It is a process that gives way to friendships,'' he said.

Farag, the imam and a University of Louisville engineering professor, said Muslims should not withdraw when approached about their religion. They should be inclusive, inviting outsiders to visit the mosque, he said.

''This religion is an open book,'' he said. ''There are no secret rituals. There is no secret in it.''

Farag also stressed the need for tolerance, saying any attack on someone who is different amounts to an attack on God. ''We are all brothers in God,'' he said. ''We are his creations.''

Later, the Presbyterian visitors watched quietly as Muslims bowed, then knelt to recite prayers. Men gathered in one room, women in an adjoining room, as Islamic custom dictates.

Afterward, Muslims took turns shaking hands with Halsey Sandford, a member of Louisville's Central Presbyterian Church.

Sandford said he knew little about Islam and attended the service to ''listen and learn.'' He was surprised to hear themes familiar in both churches and mosques, Sandford said.

''I've become struck by the commonality because we've been totally ignorant of each other,'' he said. ''We didn't know where our common ground was.''

The teams' tour wrapped up late last month with a gathering at a retreat center in Stony Point, N.Y. Thomas said the church's General Assembly Council will decide whether to repeat the tour but ''there is a lot of enthusiasm for doing this again.''


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