Christians, Muslims forging new bonds

Southern California has long been on the front lines of religious and cultural diversity and the challenges and promises that brings.

Like the Iberian Peninsula in medieval times, where Muslims, Jews and Christians enjoyed periods of peaceful coexistence punctuated by war and intolerance, the record in Southern California has been mixed.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Muslims and Muslim Americans across the country were subjected to threats and derogatory remarks, investigated by law enforcement and had their faith characterized as a "terrorist religion."

Locally, interfaith strains surfaced in 2006 when Jewish leaders objected to plans by the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission to honor a prominent Muslim leader, Maher Hathout, who had spoken critically of Israel. Christian and Muslim leaders came to Hathout's defense, saying that he had long backed interfaith engagement and had spoken out against terrorism and radical Islam. The award was ultimately upheld, but some tensions remain.

Nonetheless, Southern California's Christians and Jews have spoken out in defense of Muslims on local issues, such as building a new mosque. Religious leaders have also joined a national campaign taking the U.S. government to task for what the leaders call state-sponsored torture. Catholics and Muslims have discussed immigration and the Koran's reverence for Jesus and Mary. Muslims have joined other faiths in programs that serve the poor, the hungry and battered women. Jewish organizations have helped fund education programs in Catholic schools. Religious leaders of all stripes meet together regularly.

A new effort is unfolding among Christians and Muslims to build additional bridges at a time when President Obama has made reaching out to the Islamic world a national priority.

"So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity," Obama said in a major speech in Cairo in June. "And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end."

Southern California religious leaders said they viewed the president's speech as an affirmation of their work. The next step will unfold in the months ahead when local churches and mosques will be asked to work together in a new educational program called Standing Together.

Members of a relatively new organization called the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group have developed the program and say they hope it will become a national model. In seven sessions, the program seeks to educate Christians and Muslims about one another's beliefs and customs, and to encourage dialogue and understanding that lead to concrete cooperative actions.

The challenges are formidable. For decades, interfaith talks here have produced soaring rhetoric and polished statements. But polls have indicated that despite the intentions and efforts of religious leaders, a good deal of ignorance and misunderstanding about other faiths remain in the pews.

"We have a lot of work to do," said Father Alexi Smith, the ecumenical and interreligious affairs officer of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The stakes could not be higher in the view of the Rev. Canon Gwynne Guibord, co-founder of the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group. Guibord is the ecumenical and interreligious concerns officer for the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese and a prominent figure in such efforts by the National Council of Churches.

"I believe that we will either perish together or we will survive together," Guibord said in a recent interview. "In order to survive together we really need to be more than tolerant of one another. We need to grow in understanding of one another."

A keystone of the new interfaith program is its emphasis on not seeking converts, a question that came up several times during a talk Guibord gave in Westwood on Saturday before 35 people of various faiths.

"This is not an opportunity for proselytizing," she assured the group, convened by the Pacifica Institute, which was inspired by M. Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim, preacher and author who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and encourages interfaith dialogue.

Guibord and others say years of local interfaith talks may be paying off.

"It started out, 'I am better than you so I will show you the light,' " is how the early beginnings of interfaith contacts were characterized by Hathout, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California. "The second stage was 'I'm still better than you, but I will tolerate you.' Then it reached the stage that 'I am not better than you and you are not better than me.' Now, it's, 'Let us know one another,' " Hathout said.

For example, in Newhall, members of the First Presbyterian Church learned only in May that a 100-family mosque half a block from the church had been open almost five years. The predominantly Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi mosque, known as the Unity Center of Santa Clarita, is located in an industrial area.

It came to light during preliminary discussions over the church's participation in the Standing Together program.

"They didn't even know there was a mosque there," said Jihad Turk, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles and co-founder of the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group. The church's pastor, the Rev. Bill Barnes, confirmed the story.

The Standing Together program does not include discussion of political issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the lack of religious freedom for non-Muslims in some Muslim-majority countries.

That silence troubled Sande Hart, who leads the Spiritual and Religious Alliance for Hope in Orange County. The problem, Hart said during a question and answer period at the Westwood meeting, was not religious divisions but political divisions. "How much real conflict comes out of faith?" she asked.

"A lot," Guibord replied. But the priest said that building relationships -- putting a human face on the "other" -- can minimize political conflict over time.

She recounted the Biblical story of the patriarch Abraham, who kept all four sides of his tent open in the desert so that he could see travelers approaching from any direction. He would offer them hospitality, food and shelter.

"I like to think of the work . . . as Abraham's tent where we keep all four sides open," Guibord said.

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