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Gulf Crisis Sparks Interest in Classes on Muslims, Islam : Mideast: Mainline denominations are moving to educate their members on the people and religion in the area of contention.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mainline denominations across the country are taking steps to educate their members about the Muslim culture and the Islamic religion because of U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf.

Churches, synagogues and religious institutions are offering special instruction during adult Sunday school classes, simple after-church discussions, seminars and special programs.

“I knew almost nothing about (Islam) before this,” said Ken Ioso, who organized a three-week seminar on Islam for his adult class at Macalister-Plymouth United Church in St. Paul, Minn.

“We didn’t know a lot; we were starting from ground zero,” Ioso said.

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Acknowledged John Borelli, who is in charge of interreligious relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops: “We as Christians need to learn more about Islam.”

Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ and Jews are among those offering the educational programs.

The Rev. Joseph Bragg’s adult church school class at the Avenue Christian Church in St. Louis, for example, has become a forum for political and ethical debate on the Persian Gulf crisis.

William Gepford, pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Dearborn, Mich., has given a dozen speeches on Islam in the last two months and has eight more scheduled before the end of December. He has had more than 40 requests for information and appearances at churches and organizations since the crisis. More than 25% of the city’s roughly 86,000 population is Arab-American.

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Many people are looking to religious institutions where knowledge “can be apolitical and unbiased,” said Gepford, who is also director of the Presbyterians’ Interfaith Ministry in Detroit.

“People are asking the question, Why are we there?” Gepford said.

Those who have attended the educational programs said they have learned a variety of things.

Ioso said the classes in St. Paul taught him what the daily life of a Muslim is like.

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Thomas Riggs said he now understands some of the reasons that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, thanks to classes at his Methodist Church in Ann Arbor.

“Iraq wants an access to the sea,” Riggs said. “There is also a big oil field that straddles the border of Kuwait and Iraq.” Riggs’ classmate Fay Kincaid said she gained a clearer view of how the Arab population looked at the situation in the Persian Gulf.

“Now, our real object is what we can do to have peace there,” Kincaid said.

A basic study book on Islam, called “God is One,” is still a bestseller after being on the market for almost two years--an almost unheard-of selling stint for its Christian publisher. Requests for the book, published by Friendship Press, which is part of the National Council of Churches, have jumped since Iraq’s Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.

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Bragg, of Avenue Christian Church in St. Louis, teaches from a series of books and educational materials called “Discipleship Alive!” The series was put together by an interdenominational group of educators to elicit comments and discussion about contemporary events like the Gulf situation, he said.

But some Islamic groups and educators worry that much of the material and information available on Islam is incorrect and biased.

“There is so much misinformation out there,” said Scott Easton of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.

John Woods, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago, trains public school and religious educators to be become better instructors on Islam.

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“Islam is very misunderstood in this country,” said Woods, even though “it is rapidly becoming the second-largest religion in the country.” Woods estimated that there are about 5 million Muslims in America.

A common misperception is that “if Saddam Hussein is a Muslim, and he does nasty and brutal things, then anything Muslim is brutal,” Woods said.

To help solve the problem, religious groups are seeking local specialists as instructors. For example, a history professor from the University of Michigan and other local scholars lectured during last month’s study series on the Persian Gulf at the First United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor.

Organized by the church’s Peace Study/Action Committee, the course taught 25 adults about the history, geography and political motivations of Hussein.

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Joyce Chesbrough, who attended the classes, said it helped to hear from a variety of speakers in order to get different viewpoints. “If you get enough of them, you begin to be able to draw your own conclusions,” she said.

The Center for Global Education in Minneapolis has been deluged with more requests than it can handle from religious and civic organizations seeking guest speakers and information, said Ann Haften, the center’s coordinator for communication and development.

“A lot of people are starting from scratch,” Haften said.

Some groups learn in informal settings, such as the gathering on a recent Sunday in Louisville, Ky. Christians, Jews and Muslims met at the local mosque “to address issues related to the Muslim faith,” said Bette Levy of the Interfaith Task Force at the National Conference of Christians and Jews, which coordinated the event.

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Levy said the interdenominational gathering was aimed at combating prejudice against Arab-Americans. The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee says there have been hundreds of reports of hostility and abuse toward Arab-Americans since the Gulf crisis began, Easton said.

Places such as the Islamic Center of Southern California periodically offer public forums on timely topics in attempting to offset misconceptions.

As Msgr. Royale Vadakin, an interfaith leader in Los Angeles pointed out, there is “a vast majority of people in the U.S.” don’t know that only 18% of all Muslims are Arabs.

Some Catholic Churches are addressing the Gulf issue in dialogue groups. These formal discussion groups bring together Muslims and Catholics to help remove religious stereotypes and sort out political and social questions. The groups are meeting in several Catholic archdioceses nationwide, including those in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

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Rabbi Matthew Simon of B’nai Israel in Rockville, Md., said that since most synagogues have ongoing adult education classes on comparative religion, the current Persian Gulf crisis has resulted in few new education programs.

But on Yom Kippur afternoon, the rabbi said, he “taught” his congregation of 1,200 about the historical relationship of Jews and Muslims.


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